The room was a sea of black t-shirts that read “unholy” and “666” and there were more pentagrams than I could count. Although I was there to see Myrkur, most were there to see the headliner, Behemoth, an extremely popular black metal band from Poland.
When it comes to what makes black metal “black” it does not get much more overt that what I saw that night. Behemoth performed their new album, “The Satanist” in its entirety. At one point the bassist, Orion, held a crucifix upside down over the crowd. Later Nergal (who sings, plays guitar and is the undisputed creative force behind the band) handed out “communion” wafers that were imprinted with the band’s “unholy trinity” symbol (see below) to crazed fans in the first few rows.
And there I was, in the front row of the balcony, trying to take it all in.
Such was my first trip to a black metal show. Not surprisingly I was not entirely at ease with what I saw and heard. Was my presence there inherently in conflict with my Christianity and/or my vocation as a priest? As I have written before, this question has long vexed me.
Although I listen to a lot of dark, heavy music there have been bands that I wouldn’t listen to, not because I didn’t like their music, but because they were overtly Satanic. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to question whether or not this divide was an artifice. After a lot of reflection, and in large part because I really wanted to see Myrkur perform her first gig in the USA, I thought it was finally time to push past those self-imposed restrictions and see how being at black metal concert made me feel.
It started with the crowd. No one seemed particularly intent sacrificing a virgin after the show. In fact, setting aside their appearance, most everyone I met was really nice. It seemed that many, if not most, of the fans were there first and foremost for the music.
Of course you can find similar bands that don’t utilize satanic words and symbols so there must be some particular appeal to the pentagrams, et al. If this wasn’t about religion per se then what was the attraction?
If what I’ve read on the subject is correct then despite appearances to the contrary, it not actually about worshiping a supernatural being but rather the ideals they see represented by the character of Satan. Nergal summarized it pretty well in an interview with the Guardian “To me, Satan stands for everything that is dear to me. I’ve always been very fond of independence and autonomy and freethinking and freedom and intelligence. Satan has always been a very strong symbol of all those values, so for me it’s very natural to take his side.”
Assuming that the majority of fans echo his views this means that in essence it was really all about rebellion. All the inverted crosses and blasphemy had much more to do with the adolescent rush one gets from pissing off the establishment and giving the finger to the family, school, boss, church or culture that has frustrated you and left you feeling alienated than it did with actually worshiping Satan.
That is a sentiment I certainly understand. Getting into music in order to freak out your parents…check. Creating a scary persona to intimidate your classmates… check. Indulging in everything dark and brooding in order to convince yourself that you are deep and profound… check. Been there, done that, still have the tattered t-shirts.
Of course recognizing this doesn’t leave me entirely at ease . There are still some fundamental philosophical divides that merit further exploration. And doutbless there are some for whom all this is not merely a gesture but a reflection of deeply held beliefs that are in complete opposition to my own. Yet understanding that for most the pentagrams were largely symbolic allowed me to sit through the entire show and find something to appreciate in the sounds, theatre and above all in the energy of the crowd below. Click here to read a review of this show and see way better pictures than I took.
I’ll be writing more on this soon. Until then I’d really like to hear your thoughts.